I went for the collards. I went for the cornbread and candied yams. I went to The Root and Soul for soul food, “gourmet” soul food as told by the outside sign. I went to Christian Buze’s restaurant because his grandmother is Elizabeth White, founder of Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe in downtown Phoenix, an enclave for stewed oxtail and sweet potato pie since 1964. I went because Buze “started at grandma’s restaurant 30 years ago,” learned the family recipes, and now gives them “his own twist.”
I went because of the unlikely location: North Scottsdale, at Frank Lloyd Wright Road and a cross street with a number like a summer temperature. Buze’s prior Root and Soul location opened last year in DeSoto Central Market, and went down with that whole ship in September 2018. A strip mall restaurant in Scottsdale couldn’t be any more opposite a food hall in central Phoenix. But if Buze’s food is as good as his followers say, it would travel.
The menu at Root and Soul doesn’t stray much from southern staples: fried fish, pork chops, chicken and waffles, sandwiches, comforting sides, and grits (Sunday breakfast only). If there is any notable bias within this category, it’s toward New Orleans. Buze plates po’boys, jambalaya, and other preparations kindled with Cajun spices — including one version of his catfish.
So I went for the catfish.
Finfish at Root and Soul — catfish, rockfish, and snapper — can be ordered fried or “blackened” with Cajun spices. Go fried all day and night (or rather, until 8 p.m., when this kitchen calls it for the night relatively early). Blackening spices jacket the fish in a pocket of heady flavor, but salt soon swells and washes it away. Fried catfish, on the other hand, is pure dynamite. A coarse sheath of cornmeal encases the fish, crackling under your teeth with a blunt, toothsome burst that resists more ruggedly than fried chicken’s crisp but offer a finer shatter. The fish is flaky and surprisingly moist under the thick coating, and hot as hell out of the cast iron.
And sure as sunrise, you can bet that I went for the fried chicken.
Buze gives this humble bird the royal treatment. He brines for 24 hours. He rubs segmented parts — the breast, the thigh, the legs — with an 11-spice blend. When it comes to frying, he spurns the wire basket for cast iron. The fried chicken that emerges has a sculptural breading. It seems to have knobs and juttings that grow out from the base breading like drip castles from the beach. The meat is hot and juicy. Not a single complaint in the wide world.
If you want, you can request specific parts of the chicken. You can even request gluten-free breading.
I went to Root and Soul for a chill atmosphere. A lot of the restaurants up in this part of the Valley have a corporate, hollow, plastic feeling. Root and Soul is a leanly furnished, sparely staffed independent restaurant with character oozing from vibrant tiny paintings and red dangling lights, not to mention the blues guitar of Buddy Guy and scratchy howling of Janis Joplin. You can kick it here. My toddler son was romping around our U-shaped, red-leather table one Sunday and nobody cared.
I went on a Sunday for mac and cheese for two. Billed as “amazingly rich millionaire mac,” it was more of an average version, though anchored by a blend of seven cheeses that coated even the inner shell spirals. However, some shreds were wholly unmelted. More texture would have been nice.
No worries. Other sides fare better. Yams have a simple, winsome richness and practically fall apart on your fork. Collards are salty, irony, and deliver rich green comfort to seesaw against bites of fried goodness. Cornbread has all the flavor, but could have more moisture. Hushpuppies are piping-hot and dense and fragrant of corn. Their aioli is heavy on the mayo; you don’t need more than a dab to embellish the nicely fried balls of cornmeal.
On the whole, though Buze’s sides are solid, they won’t blaze a trail down your memory like the fried chicken and fried fish.
Those sides won’t haunt you like the shrimp po’boy — one or two changes away from being an 11/10. The tragedy of this sandwich is how fantastically the buttery roll is toasted. It is perfect. It is crisp on the flat part where bread rested on hot steel, and soft but dense in the rest. Shrimp spiral head-to-tail down the middle split. The texture is so beautiful — the bread, the way the shrimp delicately pops. Cruelly, heavy use of mayo jackhammers the harmony. By the time you get halfway through the bun, you’re glommed down and longing for those early bites.
I went to Root and Soul in Scottsdale twice. I had two good meals. A few of the sides needed more zap and the ratios were off on one sandwich, sure, but the big-ticket mains were stellar. The smoke and animal intensity of andouille sausage from Alabama pervaded every grain of jambalaya rice. And as I bit into that fried catfish, the cornmeal crust ripped and roared like a jet engine, and tender flesh scorched the roof of my mouth, but I kept eating. I bit in again and the crunch exploded, loudly, very loudly, because, for my whole second visit, 73 of the eatery’s 74 seats were empty.
Nobody else was there.
I went to Root and Soul for some food. You should go, too.
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The Root and Soul
801 North Third Street
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Monday
Southern fried chicken $14
Catfish (fried) $14
Shrimp po’ boy $15
Note: The Root and Soul has relocated from the north Scottsdale location.